EAU CLAIRE — After a months-long spring and summer lull, COVID-19 cases are starting to escalate once more in the Chippewa Valley.
Heads of health departments in the area say an increase in new cases over the last several weeks is deeply concerning — especially coming a few weeks before classes resume — and that the Delta variant is almost certainly driving the uptick.
“We have not seen cases at this level since the second week of February,” said Audrey Boerner, public information officer for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department’s pandemic response.
Mayo Clinic officials last week warned that they’re expecting hospitalizations to spike over the coming weeks if more people do not get vaccinated immediately.
Eau Claire, Dunn and Chippewa counties are still far below the extremely high COVID-19 activity seen last year in October and November, though cases are ticking up.
Eau Claire County’s current average is 16 new cases of COVID-19 daily. (In May, June and July, the county was averaging one to five new cases per day.)
Chippewa County is averaging eight new cases per day, and Dunn County is averaging about five new cases per day, according to state data.
“We haven’t had a really big jump, but we went from seeing a handful of cases a week to 34 last week,” said KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County Health Department. “We are seeing an incremental and gradual increase in percent positivity. Now we’re over 5% (of all tests coming back positive). So it feels like we’re on the verge of a significant increase.”
The state currently ranks all three counties at the “high” COVID-19 activity level. (The state ranks counties as having low, medium, high or very high case activity levels. Those ratings are based on the number of cases per 100,000 residents, and the trajectory of disease activity in that county over the most recent two weeks.)
At a federal level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday bumped Eau Claire and Chippewa counties into the “high” community transmission category, only a few days after the counties were moved into the “substantial” category.
“As schools prepare to return to in-person learning with many students not able to get vaccinated and many activities moving indoors this fall, we are concerned about more cases and the likelihood of more hospitalizations and deaths among our families, friends and neighbors,” Boerner said in an email to the Leader-Telegram.
On July 28, the Eau Claire City-County Health Department put out a message on its Facebook page: If you test positive for the virus, tell anyone you’ve been in close contact with that they may have been exposed. “Due to an increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Eau Claire County, we are unable to call close contacts at this time,” the department wrote.
The Delta variant
The Delta strain, which is much more infectious than the original virus strain, appears to be driving the increase in virus activity.
Delta is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, the state Department of Health Services announced last month.
It’s also dominating the nation as a whole, officials say. The Delta variant made up 83% of all sequenced COVID-19 cases in the U.S. in late July, up from 50% at the beginning of the month, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.
At least 373 cases of the Delta variant have been found in Wisconsin, but the real number of cases is likely much higher, state officials have said, because only a very small fraction of positive COVID-19 tests are sequenced — the time-intensive process by which states monitor COVID-19 variants.
The Health Department doesn’t have information on how many Delta cases, if any, have been found in Eau Claire County, Boerner said.
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the Wisconsin health department’s Bureau of Communicable Diseases, said in July of the actual number of Delta cases in the state: “It’s hard to give a precise estimate of how many we’re missing, but we know we’re missing many.”
Hospitalizations haven’t risen significantly in Eau Claire County in recent weeks. Hospitals have warned that will likely change without precautions.
Three Eau Claire County residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 last week. That’s on track with the county’s weekly average of three to four people hospitalized with the virus per week since February, according to county data.
But people who aren’t vaccinated are becoming the majority of new COVID-19 cases.
Between January and July, over 98% of COVID cases were among unvaccinated people, the state DHS said.
“Every strain of this virus is more dangerous to unvaccinated people than vaccinated people,” Boerner said Tuesday. “Locally and around the country, we are seeing the most serious health impacts from COVID-19 happen in unvaccinated people.”
Since COVID vaccines became readily available, 90% of people hospitalized with virus-related symptoms at Mayo Clinic Health System locations in northwest Wisconsin weren’t vaccinated, said Dr. Richard Helmers, Mayo’s regional vice president, in a call with reporters last week.
“We cannot stress enough that now is the time to get a COVID-19 vaccine,” Helmers said last week.
The vast majority of COVID-19 cases in Dunn County are people who aren’t vaccinated, Gallagher said: “As we look toward the return of the school year, we are going to have an increase in that (18- to 24-year-old) demographic. Increasing the number and density of unvaxxed people will, I believe, lead to additional spread.”
Vaccinations get a small boost
As cases tick up, slightly more people are getting vaccinated.
In all three counties, weekly new vaccinations increased during the end of July when compared to the beginning of that month.
In Eau Claire County, 759 doses of the vaccine were administered last week, compared to 658 in the first week of July. Dunn and Chippewa counties are seeing smaller, but similar upticks, according to state data.
It’s not a dramatic increase — Eau Claire County was administering 10 times as many doses per week this spring.
Gallagher said she believes an increase in vaccinations now makes sense.
“It could be that their friends and families have been vaccinated and they’ve seen the very minimal risk not come to fruition,” Gallagher said. “There’s a great body of evidence they can point to now, that they’re effective and the risks are minimal.”